When doctors make mistakes: blame technology or ethics?

30 01 2012

In my opinion, it is acceptable when I go to a doctor with a complicated illness and he says “I don’t know what this illness is” or “sorry I can’t help but I will refer you to another hospital…” instead of misinforming me. Giving a patient the wrong information whether good or bad news is not acceptable under any circumstances when it comes to health.

A few months ago my sister was pregnant and through her antenatal care she was advised to take a couple of tests to monitor her developing baby. One of these tests was the ultra sound scan. She did the first scan at Rubaga hospital (one of the National referral hospitals in Kampala, Uganda). The results indicated that she was expecting a baby whose sex was not yet clear.

Because she was anxious to know the sex of her developing baby, when the pregnancy clocked 6months she decided to do another scan. This time she did it at Kadic Clinic in Nakulabye – just about 10 minutes walk from my house. Kadic is one of a handful of high profile clinics (ok let’s say reputable private hospitals on Ugandan standard) in Uganda. This day is still fresh in mind. After the test she couldn’t wait to break the news to everybody, at 11am immediately after the scan she called to tell me over the phone: “guess what? I just finished the scan and I am going to give birth to TWINS! Two boys!” she said with emphasis. The results of this scan indicated that she (my sister) was expecting twins. She was excited about the news; actually the news of twins is exciting in Uganda (like in many other African countries I believe). From this day on, we all started expecting the first set of twins in the family.

Quick Forward:

Last week my sister’s pregnancy was due so she went to Rubaga all ready for the twins – personally, I was excited about the first set of twins in the family. The news came in at 11pm January 21st from my mother over phone, my sister was operated on and that she had given birth to a baby girl! Now this came as a (good) surprise considering that we were all expecting twins. So, I started spreading the news to my friends via social media. I cant forget the comments from: Siena “CONGRATS! But how is it possible that two boys became one girl. This is not possible!” and Nelly said “Congratulations!!… My, she is going to be a smart kid that one.  She tricked us all!! :)”


Now that this happens I remember the time when my mother took my 8 year old nephew to the same clinic – Kadic for an ultrasound scan. He had complications in the stomach so his doctor recommended Kadic Hospital to do the scan. The results of the scan show that he had sores in the stomach. The results went on to show that even though the doctor was not sure about the cause of the sores, he was pretty sure that the sores were quite severe and that he needed serious medical attention.

When my mother took the results back to my nephew’s doctor (who had in fact recommended Kadic), the doctor said that the results didn’t make sense – “this young boy can’t have sores in his stomach or I should have realized in my examination”. So, the doctor asked my mother to take my nephew to Mulago Hospital (the national referral hospital) and do another scan from there. The doctor said that he needed to be certain about these results before he could cause alarms or make recommendations. My mother was already worried about my nephew – the results were already traumatizing and this meant that the young boy’s life was in danger.

The following day my mother couldn’t wait to see the doctor at Mulago Hospital to examine the young boy and do the scan. The results from Mulago indicated that the boy’s stomach was doing just fine – no complications. Now my mother was confused: which one of the two doctors/ results to believe. She needed to go back to my nephew’s doctor before she could draw any conclusions even though she was already terrified by the results from Kadic. “All along I was thinking: How do you tell your eight year old grandson that he has sores everywhere in his stomach? And what health implications would that have on his life?” said my mom.

So, my mother went back to my nephew’s doctor, she presented the results from Mulago hospital – the doctor keenly compared the two results before saying to her “not to worry, the young boy is alright he could have had some minor complications in his stomach but it’s nothing serious – no sores”. He said that the results from Mulago were correct. The boy’s tummy didn’t have any sores as indicated in the results from Kadic.

None of my family members has been back to Kadic to seek an explanation about the controversial results. This is because when we realized that Kadic’s ultrasound scan has provided wrong results in my nephew’s case, we all took an assumption that this was a negligible mistake. And now with my sister’s incident, I think we should have taken the results seriously and hold Kadic accountable; try to find answers from them.

Blame it on technology or ethics?

Until the present day, I am still wondering how a trained doctor could make such a mistake – causing a false alarm. My nephew and sister’s cases are just two of the thousands of patients who get the wrong results every single day not just from Kadic but from different health centres around the country.

One question keeps crossing my mind: “What went wrong with the health sector?” Now I know technology fails (sometimes) but what happened to the professionalism and ethics? Aren’t doctors supposed to double check the findings of their tests before they break the news to the patients?

To all doctors out there: I want to remind you that when you break the wrong news to the patients/ care takers about their illness, you not only cause panic, you (could) cause mental damage, confusion sometimes leading to more serious illness which could cause sudden death! We trust you with our lives and lives of our loved ones – you should treasure that trust.

There is definitely need to raise more awareness about health consumer rights to help patients learn how to deal with such incidents when they happen. It’s a shame because a lot of patients have no idea on how to handle with situations like this.

For the patients/ people out there, know your right as a health consumer/ user; Speak out!